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The Awful Truth: Michael Moore and Sicko

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Weinstein Co.)

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Sicko
Directed by Michael Moore
(Weinstein Co.)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Few people remember, but between 1989’s Roger and Me and 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore floundered in the mainstream, directing documentary flops like The Big One and failing in his one attempt at fiction filmmaking, Canadian Bacon. Two largely forgotten television shows, TV Nation and The Awful Truth, also bore the Moore imprint. Quasi-journalistic spoofs of primetime news programs with the aim of political satire, both were actually quite good. They were also too far ahead of their time, forerunners of The Daily Show in search of a frustrated liberal audience who could catch up with their combination of righteous outrage and absurdist mocking of conservative bluster. Nobody got the joke.

The irony is that while Bowling for Columbine reestablished Moore’s reputation and influence, the film also exposed how his talents were best served in the television format. The for-the-camera stunts — the montage sequences, the ubiquitous figure of Moore himself — all work to humorous effect on a small screen unable to contain his overload of ego and mainstream-unfriendly politics. Yet on a large screen the effect is diminished. There’s something embarrassing about Moore’s movies when viewed in a theater, like viewing a puffy, sleep-deprived face under bright lights. Flaws become magnified and horribly exposed: The stunts feel cheap, the montage sequences seem simplistic and Moore becomes an insufferable showboat.

The truth, as even many of those like myself who agree with his politics would agree, is that judged against aesthetic standards in documentary filmmaking, Michael Moore makes fair to poor films. But then when Michael Moore is at issue, aesthetic standards suddenly run up against more important virtues. Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance, wasn’t just a film, but a rallying point of the anti-Iraq War, anti-Bush movement. It was therefore measured, regardless of quality, by how much damage it could inflict in George the Second’s campaign to keep his seat as President. That’s an enormous burden for one film and one filmmaker to carry, and carrying that burden obscured the film itself and its real political worth, in terms of connecting images to ideas. So, too, did it obscure Moore’s aesthetic legacy, the influence his controversial star has had and, presumably, will continue to have upon the so-called American documentary renaissance to which he is the casually dressed uncle.

Sicko, Moore’s latest, carries a more humble activist and symbolic burden than his previous effort, and thus will hopefully be judged more according to its merits as a film than as a political catalyst. Perhaps, then, those who gave Moore a free pass for Fahrenheit 9/11 will start to see that Moore’s directorial mediocrity as a feature filmmaker far outweighs his short-term gains as a propagandist. Sicko is a strange beast of a documentary, at once lacking the intelligence to fully engage its subject while also lacking the imagination to find a creative populist language to frame its argument. This being a Michael Moore film, it certainly casts a wide net over a shallow pool. There is a ton of emotional testimony, and the accompanying emotional cues, to raise awareness of the horrors of the privatized health care system that values reaping profit over providing medical treatment and support. It’s this sort of unashamed appeal to the heart that makes Moore the lightning rod he is, and rightly so — such tactics are a discredit to the causes he champions, coating cynicism with sentimentality only to betray the seriousness and urgency of his own beliefs.

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